Page last updated at 14:44 GMT, Monday, 1 February 2010

The 'explosive admission' in Israel's Gaza report

Smoke and fire caused by explosions from Israeli military operations is seen on the outskirts of Gaza City (file image from 8/01/2009)
The conflict in Gaza lasted 22 days from the end of 2008 to early 2009

By Paul Wood
BBC News, Jerusalem

Buried in paragraph 108 of the Israeli foreign ministry's report to the UN on Gaza is the key fact of the document.

Two senior officers - one the commander of the Gaza ground operation, no less - were reprimanded for failing to follow their own rules of engagement.

The document was slipped out almost unnoticed late on Friday night, but on Monday morning it was no surprise that one Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, is leading on the story and others give it prominence.

This is an explosive admission, especially after Israel had said earlier - after an investigation by a senior general - that white phosphorus was not misused during the Gaza conflict.

As Ha'aretz says, this is the first time that Israel has acknowledged, at least in part, allegations by the UN and other international organisations that civilians were jeopardised by the misuse of artillery near the UN warehouse in Gaza City.

This is the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] investigating the IDF
Anonymous UN official

And this is in relation to one of the most notorious incidents of the conflict, the burning of the main UN warehouse in Gaza City with white phosphorus shells.

UN officials are, though, privately sceptical of the process by which this admission of wrongdoing emerged.

"This is the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] investigating the IDF," said one UN official who was in Gaza at the time.

The two officers have just been disciplined - they apparently keep their rank and pay - and will not face criminal prosecution.

That is something the Israeli political-military establishment is desperate to avoid.

They fear it would be disastrous for morale and would damage the ability of Israel's army to fight the next war.

Bad for morale

However, Israel's problem is that if its own investigations appear to the outside world to be a whitewash designed to avoid action in the courts, the UN is all the more likely to order a special tribunal at The Hague.

White phosphorus shells fired on UN compound, 15 January 2009
The IDF used white phosphorus in its attack on the Gaza Strip

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will present his report on the Gaza war to the UN General Assembly this week.

This follows a detailed inquiry by the UN war crimes judge Richard Goldstone, who called on both Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas to start their own credible, fully independent investigations or risk action by an international tribunal.

Israel is engaged in a diplomatic offensive to try to head off an international war crimes prosecution.

One response might be for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to order a proper judicial investigation headed by a Supreme Court judge.

He is said to be weighing this and other options and will decide by the end of the week.

Hamas, too, has been called upon to carry out independent investigations into the conduct of its forces.

UN officials believe that it, too, will have to do more to satisfy the UN and avoid prosecution at The Hague.

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